The first thing to know about “Ride the Cyclone” is that it’s a goofy, extravagant, bad-taste musical comedy about teenagers who have died in a roller-coaster accident. If that suggests a macabre contradiction in tone to you, then that’s the other thing you should know.
And if you don’t think about the utter cruelty of the concept and the pasted-on smile-button conclusion, it may be altogether possible, oddly enough, to enjoy the audacious foolishness and admire the gung-ho excellence of the cast and the campy, over-the-top staging.
Sometimes I could. More of the time, however, I just couldn’t overlook the sadism behind the upbeat reach of a project that, clearly, yearns to be a grisly, fun-loving bonanza in the offbeat tradition of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Urinetown.”
The show, first developed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and based on a cabaret from Canada, is set in a dilapidated warehouse — part fancifully broken-down carnival, part limbo where the six dead kids imagine what their lives might have been. Oh, there’s also a reality-TV angle because The Amazing Karnak, the doomed yet sardonic fortunetelling machine, has set up a competition in which, after a unanimous vote, one will be chosen to return to life.
Rachel Rockwell, a much-prized Chicago director and choreographer, has staged the 100-minute show with an intentional homemade quality, neat special effects and lots of video — both absurd and poignant. The unclaimed headless girl named Jane Doe (Emily Rohm as a zombie doll) spins upside down in the air while singing coloratura. The boy with the degenerative neurological disease (Alex Wyse) tosses away his crutches and transforms into a glam rocker from a faraway star run by cats.
Highlights include the gay Jewish boy (the terrific Kholby Wardell) who dreams of being a decadent cross-dresser prostitute from French new-wave cinema, and the crotch-hugging hunk from Ukraine (the charismatic Gus Halper) with hip-hop ambitions. Then there is the master manipulator, Karnak (the formidable Karl Hamilton), with empty lights for eyes and the unwanted ability to prophesize when and how people will die.
The show has been written and composed by Canadians Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, whose frequently poetic lyrics are just as often accompanied by banal, derivative tunes. Maxwell, in the program bio for his first musical, muses that “this whole theater thing is kind of just a weird accident.” I appreciate his incredulity.